Standard German among Traditional Anabaptists

Mark L. Louden

In an earlier post to this blog, I explored how speakers of the standard German that is written and spoken in Central Europe have often been critical of the language situation among traditional Anabaptist sectarians who live in predominantly non-German-speaking societies like the United States and Canada. And some English-monolingual modern Mennonites in North America struggle to understand how bilingualism is not a cognitive impairment that endangers speakers’ spiritual health. They consider vernacular languages like Pennsylvania Dutch, Mennonite Low German (Plautdietsch), and Hutterite German (Hutterisch) as inadequate for communicating anything beyond everyday needs. Many also assume that bilingualism is a subtractive intellectual condition: if you know one language well, that must mean you can’t speak a second language with equal facility.

The belief that Pennsylvania Dutch, Plautdietsch, and Hutterisch are impoverished linguistic vehicles is contradicted by the fact that the Bible has been successfully translated into the first two languages, and translators are currently working to produce a version in the vernacular language of Hutterites. And for those who think that bilingualism is unnatural or unhealthy, well, it is no secret to psychologists and other researchers that the cognitive, social, and emotional benefits to knowing more than one language are manifold.

Another point of linguistic criticism directed at traditional Anabaptists is one that I will focus on here, and that has to do with their knowledge of standard or High German. Consider the image below.

Source: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/123961262/wilma-mullet#view-photo=133313180

This is the memorial marker for an Amish woman who passed away in Bonduel, Wisconsin, in 2002. The inscription at the top of the stone, “IN DER HIMMEL ISHT RUHE,” translates as “In Heaven there is peace.” Speakers of standard German would have no difficulty understanding this. Nevertheless, the sentence is at odds grammatically and orthographically with how it would ordinarily be written: “IN DEM HIMMEL IST RUHE”. The preposition in requires here the dative form of the masculine article, dem, and the verb ist is spelled without an “h”. Although some German speakers pronounce ist with an “sh” instead of an “s” sound, in German the “sh” sound is rendered as “sch”.

When European German speakers see examples like this memorial inscription, they are inclined to shake their heads at the producers of such texts for their supposedly faulty command of their “mother tongue.” One such critic is a prominent German professor of American studies at the University of Munich who shared his negative assessment of written standard German among Plain people in a three-volume reference work titled (translated) The History of North American Culture.

[T]he mother tongue of [German-speaking] immigrants is overwhelmed by the power of English. … This even applies to groups of speakers who live relatively isolated from the English-speaking majority. The publication Herold der Wahrheit of the Amish sect in Iowa is written in a strange mishmash of English syntax and Mennonite German. (Raeithel 1992, vol. 2, p. 403)

It is true that Anabaptist varieties of High German are at odds with how the language is used by Central Europeans, and the German professor quoted here is actually correct in attributing this divergence in the North American context to two sources, namely the German-derived vernacular languages spoken by groups like the Amish, and English, which most sectarians speak with native proficiency. In the gravestone inscription, for example, the lack of a dative marking on the article is due to the absence of that case in modern Pennsylvania Dutch; and the “sh” spelling is a carryover from English. Where critics like the German professor err, however, is in presuming that such forms of German represent a fall from an earlier state of linguistic grace.

To understand why North American Anabaptist varieties of standard German differ from what is used in contemporary Europe, a historical perspective is necessary. As I wrote in my earlier post, the descriptor “High” in High German has its origins in linguistic geography. The German spoken in northern Central Europe is called “Low” because of the flat landscape; as one proceeds south toward Bavaria, Switzerland, Austria, and northern Italy, the dialects in these regions comprise “High German.” The reason why the standard variety used in schools, media, and other relatively formal settings is also called High German is because it derives historically from the written dialects used in the High German dialect area, especially the east-central regions of modern Saxony and Thuringia. Contrary to popular belief, German dialects are not descended from the standard; if anything, it is the other way around.

The beginnings of a movement to develop a more or less unified standard variety of German go back to the fifteenth century, when Johannes Gutenberg’s development of movable type in 1439 revolutionized the production of written texts. The Protestant Reformation accelerated the standardization process through the dissemination of a variety of writings, many religious, including Martin Luther’s popular translation of the Bible, which appeared in 1534. Broader access to formal education led to higher rates of literacy, which also promoted the need for a standard variety of German, as did the increasing mobility of users of the language, especially merchants during the nineteenth century.

Yet standard German has never been monolithic, even today. In Austria, for example, a potato is called an Erdapfel, while in Switzerland people purchase a Billet to ride the train. In Germany, the words for these objects are Kartoffel and Fahrkarte. Differences in pronunciation and grammar (as well as spelling, a secondary linguistic phenomenon) can also be found across German-speaking Europe. In many instances, these differences are due to the twin reasons that account for the “mishmash” used by Amish-Mennonite writers in Iowa: Erdapfel derives from the dialects indigenous to Austria, and Billet is borrowed from French, a second language spoken by many Swiss Germans.

The further back in the history of standard German we go, the less standardized it was. Recent scholarship has begun to look closely at the features of regional High German varieties (landschaftliches Hochdeutsch) in earlier eras, especially the nineteenth century (cf. Ganswindt 2017). The legacy of regional High German can be found across German-speaking Europe today in so-called “regiolects,” oral forms of the standard language used by German speakers everywhere that are marked by regionalisms, especially in pronunciation and vocabulary.

When the ancestors of today’s traditional Anabaptist groups left Central Europe in large numbers in the eighteenth century, migrating eastward to Eastern Europe and Russia and westward to North America, the standard German they brought with them in their devotional literature, especially the Bible, hymnals, and prayer books, reflected the contemporary diversity across the varieties of regional High German. At that time, when German speakers put quill to paper, they usually had little concern for uniformity in the way they wrote as long as they were understood by their readers. Going back to the early sixteenth century, even Martin Luther was inconsistent in the way he wrote German. For example, in his 1522 translation of the New Testament he spelled the words for ‘time’ and ‘and’ alternately as both zeyt and zeytt and vnd and vnnd. And Luther spelled the name of the city of Wittenberg in at least 14 different ways over the course of his life (Heine 2016). The early modern English-speaking world was no different. The family name of William Shakespeare, for example, was spelled in multiple ways, including by the Bard himself (e.g., Shaksper, Shakspere, Shakspeare). The variation in how traditionally Anabaptist names have come to be spelled (e.g., Stoltzfus, Stolzfus, Stoltzfoos, Stolzfoos, Stolsfus, Stollzfus, and Stollzfos) is reminiscent of this linguistic flexibility.

By using forms of standard German that are relatively free of strict norms, groups such as the Old Orders, Old Colony Mennonites, and Hutterites are thus heirs to a linguistic tradition with deep roots in Central Europe. That is not to say that traditional Anabaptists in North America are not aware that the High German they read, sing, recite, and on occasion write is different from what speakers of European German use. Recognizing that difference, some will express opinions similar to that of a Hutterite who once remarked to a visitor from Austria, “Mir sein jå kolla Teitschverderber” (We are just German-spoilers; Lorenz-Andreasch 2004). Yet in the same way that traditional Anabaptists are content with living lives that are different from those of outsiders, they are just as satisfied with how they use the German language. In that respect, they are not unlike Swiss, Austrians, and Germans who speak and write their mother tongue in ways that are also uniquely their own.


References

Ganswindt, Brigitte. 2017. Landschaftliches Hochdeutsch. Rekonstruktion der oralen Prestigevarietät im ausgehenden 19. Jahrhundert. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner.

Heine, Matthias. 2016. “Rechtschreibung – Martin Luther setzen, sechs!” Die Welt, 26 January 2016. Accessible online at: https://www.welt.de/kultur/article151451531/Rechtschreibung-Martin-Luther-setzen-sechs.html.

Lorenz-Andreasch, Helga. 2004. Mir sein jå kolla Teitschverderber“: Die Sprache der Schmiedeleut-Hutterer in Manitoba/Kanada. Vienna: Edition Praesens.

Raeithel, Gert. 1992. Geschichte der nordamerikanischen Kultur (3 vols.). Cologne: Parkland.

Encountering Race, Creating Place, and Opening Space in the Hardings’ Mennonite House

In the early summer of 2020, I began drafting this essay about the Atlanta Mennonite House in the early 1960s as a vignette of the Civil Rights Movement and the Mennonite community. Created by black Mennonite leaders Vincent and Rosemarie Harding in 1961, the Mennonite House was both the organizational center of a voluntary service unit and an influential place in the geography of the Civil Rights Movement. However, the brutal murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, the spectacular resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the outburst of violence against people of color have thrust the needs and demands for racial justice to the forefront of the American social conscience once again. In such a contemporary situation, this short article has taken on increased pertinence and purpose. Although this study remains focused on the past, it is also an opportunity to reflect and learn about our present situation. Perhaps, in this time of turmoil, with the potential for significant change on the horizon, American Mennonites and others can find contemporary guidance in the early history of the Mennonite House. Significantly, this vignette of the Civil Rights Movement and the Mennonites highlights the importance of creating place and opening space for the cause of racial justice. As was the case in 1961, this process often requires institutional support, buy-in, and the funding of ideas to make a meaningful impact. To begin such a study of the Mennonite House, we must first understand the people who created such an significant place—Vincent and Rosemarie Harding.

Vincent Harding joined the General Conference Mennonite Church in 1957 and was soon appointed as a pastor at Woodlawn Mennonite Church in Chicago. His entrance into the Mennonite fold was rooted in his fascination with sixteenth-century Anabaptists, whom he discovered during his graduate studies at the University of Chicago. He was drawn to the “discipleship, self-sacrificing love, [defiance of] the power of kings and rulers . . . [and] willingness to accept death rather than inflict suffering” demonstrated by early Anabaptists, and he was eager to apply the ethics of “peacemaking, reconciliation, and nonviolence” to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement.1 While at Woodlawn, Vincent met Rosemarie Freeney, a public school teacher in Chicago who had been attending a congregation in the “old” Mennonite Church, another Mennonite denomination, since 1951. They were married in 1960 and created the Mennonite House in Atlanta that next summer.2

Together and as individuals, the Hardings were “involved in trying to encourage that traditional peace church community to think more fully and creatively about how it could relate to the Freedom Movement,” and to see the “natural connection” between the Movement and Mennonite theology.3 Indeed, the Hardings’ dual identities positioned them to be effective agents for pushing Mennonites further to seek integration, practice nonviolence, and witness to society. On the one hand, the Hardings’ leadership, faith, and action within the church made them Mennonites among Mennonites. On the other hand, they were black people born outside of the Mennonite fold. This gave them a distinctive vantage point to guide white Mennonites toward their unrealized potential and criticize them for their shortcomings. The Hardings’ unique identity, personal investment in the Civil Rights Movement, and strong advocacy for Mennonite involvement in the Movement were critical in creating the Mennonite House.

Vincent and Rosemarie Harding. Source: The Mennonite, March 20, 1962, 207.

In the late summer of 1961, the Peace Section of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) established a voluntary service (VS) unit at 504 Houston Street, Atlanta, Georgia.4 The Peace Section appointed Vincent and Rosemarie Harding as its first directors, and as the first black directors of any MCC VS unit.5 Such an appointment was natural, as the Hardings had long been agitating for a greater Mennonite presence in the heart of the Freedom Movement. The Atlanta unit, which identified almost exclusively as “the Mennonite House,” was formed to “witness to the Christian way of love and self-sacrifice in all aspects of life.”6 This was part of MCC’s response to the Hardings’ charge for Mennonites “to think more fully and more creatively about how it could relate to the Freedom Movement.”7 This open-ended commission reflected the Peace Section’s recognition of the theological and social space the Hardings had carved out for themselves among socially-reticent white Mennonites. Indeed, the Hardings, with the support of MCC, created the Mennonite House with the explicit purpose of establishing a Mennonite presence in the Freedom Movement and connecting Mennonite volunteers with the work of the Movement. The MCC Peace Section recognized the importance of establishing a physical presence in the South to facilitate meaningful work. By 1961, Mennonites had made progress in the way of race relations, but much of that progress had come in the form of conferences, study groups, and statements. In 1961, much work remained to be done. Boldly, the Peace Section recognized that “Christian obedience may at times lead to violation of government laws and regulations.”8 Such a statement was reflective of Mennonites’ theological and practical departure from their traditional posture of nonresistance during the civil rights era.9

The Hardings’ dual identities helped imbue the Mennonite House’s work with a respectful, just, and Christ-centered spirit of volunteerism, rather than one of ‘white savior’ patronage. “The privilege is really ours to be allowed by God and by our brothers of the South to share in so noble a climb [toward justice],” the Hardings wrote, advertising the Mennonite House. “They urge us to come, not to carry them, not to patronize them, but simply to add our own lives to the brave company of persons who believe that God calls men to a better way than the path of segregation, discrimination, and hatred.”10 The Hardings placed volunteers—often numbering in the thirties during the summer months—with local social work organizations and community centers, the nationally known Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).11

Although the Mennonite volunteers who came to Atlanta did so with a desire to participate in the Freedom Movement, many quickly were forced to face the racism and classism that existed in their own hearts and minds. Living and working in Atlanta often came as a rude awakening for the volunteers, known colloquially as VSers. Many were struck and even staggered by the realities of racial injustice in the city. The Hardings found such attitudes and feelings unsurprising, seeing that many of these volunteers came from rural, white, Mennonite communities in the Midwest and Canada. They worked diligently to enlighten their volunteers. Reflecting on her time with the VSers at the Mennonite House, Rosemarie believed that their VSers did good meaningful work and were transformed for the better while working in Atlanta.12

Under the Hardings’ leadership, the Mennonite House certainly fulfilled its charge from MCC to connect Mennonites to the Freedom Movement. But the Hardings made the Mennonite House something far more than a home and organizational office for Mennonite VSers involved in the Civil Rights Movement. It became, in Vincent Harding’s words, “a kind of Movement center.”13 In the context of the Movement, the Mennonite House was unique in that it was the only place in Atlanta where white and black people lived together in community. “That life together,” Vincent remarked, “was a project in itself.”14 In addition to the Hardings and Mennonite volunteers, dozens, if not hundreds, of neighbors, scholars, theologians, and activists spent time sitting around the Hardings’ dining room table engaging in lively discussion, debate, and reflection. Those who gathered at the Mennonite House included Staughton Lynd, director of the SNCC; Andrew Young, SCLC leader and later prominent politician; Howard Zinn, a young American historian; and Fannie Lou Hamer, a well-known civil rights activist.15 Moreover, activists from the Civil Rights Movement, the Nation of Islam, and the Black Power movement came together under the Mennonite House’s roof. Among the most prominent and frequent guests at the Mennonite House were Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife Coretta Scott King, who lived just around the corner. Coretta would often visit to spend time with Rosemarie and the volunteers. Rosemarie believed that Coretta found their “little community house relaxing, maybe even a bit of a refuge.”16 Most of those who spent time at the Mennonite House found it to be a place of solace, a place where white and black people alike could share their experiences, process their emotions, and grow together.

The close relationship the Hardings developed with the Kings while in Atlanta became a central feature in the Hardings’ participation in the Civil Rights Movement. Not long after the Hardings’ arrived in Atlanta in 1961, King approached them with an invitation to join the SCLC and “help keep this a Christian movement.”17 Throughout the summer of 1962, Vincent and Rosemarie Harding traveled back and forth between Atlanta and Albany, Georgia, splitting their time between their Mennonite House responsibilities and the Civil Rights Movement. They did similar work with King and the Movement in Birmingham, Alabama, in the summer of 1964.18 Rosemarie recalled that while in Albany, they “quietly encourag[ed] conversation between black organizers and sympathetic whites, counsel[ed] movement participants, help[ed] to write speeches, and participat[ed] in the mass meetings, protests and marches at the Movement’s heart.”19 Through all of this, the Hardings felt called as Mennonites to teach and converse with others about peace and nonviolence—both as a tactic for the Movement and as a personal, faith-centered way of life.20

The Mennonite House, however, did not shelter those living there from the ugly realities of racism. In the early 1960s, those on “the front lines” of the Civil Rights Movement were often emotionally spent, physically exhausted, and at times severely wounded. The Mennonite House quickly became a place of physical and emotional healing. Fannie Lou Hamer originally came to the Mennonite House because she had been “brutally attacked [and] badly bruised” while working in Mississippi.21 Instead of being taken to a hospital, Hamer was brought to the Mennonite House by Andrew Young and others for a few days of rest and healing. Moreover, while this project of interracial community-building found wide acceptance among those sympathetic to the Freedom Movement in Atlanta, it was still a place that challenged a racist status quo. One VSer recalled that police cars would often slowly drive back and forth in front of the Mennonite House, “trying to check out what was going on” in there.22

The Mennonite House, at 504 Houston Street, Atlanta Georgia. Source: The Mennonite, March 20, 1962, 207.

The Hardings had a distinct vision for what the Mennonite House should be—a center for the Movement which existed in a context far broader than that of the Mennonite community. They understood their work in Atlanta to be groundbreaking on several fronts. First, they were pushing the boundaries of how Anabaptist-Mennonite theology could be understood and practiced. Second, as Rosemarie reflected, the importance of the Mennonite House was that it “was one of the places, perhaps one of the few, where interracial conversations and community was being consciously created in the South. Our work encouraged that impulse in the life of the city of Atlanta and in the life of the Freedom Movement.”23 The Hardings surely fulfilled their commission to “witness to the Christian way of love and self sacrifice in all aspects of life” in ways that few—if any—Mennonites at the time would have.24 During their time with the Mennonites, the Hardings pushed Anabaptist-Mennonite theology and social action outward in the cause of racial justice. In terms of their work at the Mennonite House, this pioneering occurred in the theological and social space the Hardings had carved out for themselves among Mennonites.

Reflecting today upon the early history of the Mennonite House, American Mennonites (and others) can find significance in what the MCC Peace Section did and did not do. The creation of the Mennonite House in Atlanta was a direct result of the early agitation of the Hardings. To a large degree, the Peace Section put their institutional, material, and spiritual support behind the Hardings’ Atlanta project while simultaneously providing the Hardings space to explore and realize new social applications of Anabaptist-Mennonite theology. This space, however, was conditional and more a result of the Hardings’ constant efforts than the benevolence of white Mennonites. For example, the Peace Section demanded that Vincent Harding account for and report on how he spent his time as leader of the Mennonite House.25 Despite such limitations, it was in this place and space that the Hardings created something important not only to the Mennonite community, but also to the Freedom Movement.

In our contemporary situation, guidance can be found in the Peace Section leaders of the early 1960s and—more importantly—in the Hardings. We must listen to and learn from our black brothers and sisters—both within and beyond our own denominational fold; create physical place and share material resources in the cause of racial justice; and, open intellectual, theological, and social spaces so that people of color can work for justice in ways white Mennonites never can. In the early history of the Mennonite House, the creation of place and opening up of space occurred because of the agitation and hard work of the Hardings. Although the institutional and financial support of the MCC Peace Section was necessary for the creation of the Mennonite House, the Hardings were the pioneers, not the white Mennonite leadership. Today, we can and should dare to do better. In these times of turmoil, white American Mennonites must turn inward to interrogate our own prejudices, turn backward to learn from our past, turn upward to understand what our faith calls us to do, and turn outward to learn from and support those fighting for freedom and justice. In Vincent Harding’s call to those seeking to serve in Atlanta comes a powerful commission—one simple in words, challenging in practice, and worthy of striving toward. “Above all, we will seek to understand our brothers [and sisters of color]. We will seek to share their living and dying; we will seek to help them in whatever ways we can. We will walk with them.”26


1. Vincent Harding, “Vincent Harding: A Black Historian,” in Peacemakers: Christian Voices from the New Abolitionist Movement, edited by Jim Wallis (San Fransisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1983), 88; Harding and Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit,” 689.

2. Vincent and Rosemarie Harding’s association with the Mennonite church ended by the end of 1966. It was a schism primarily caused by Vincent Harding’s growing frustration with the degree to which his faith community would abandon their traditional nonresistance and separatism for the cause of social and political activism. The Hardings’ leadership in and break from the Mennonite community lies outside this more specific study of the Mennonite House but is nevertheless important to note. For more on Vincent Harding’s time with the Mennonites, see Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010)and Tobin Miller Shearer, “Moving Beyond Charisma in Civil Rights Scholarship: Vincent Harding’s Sojourn with the Mennonites, 1958-1966,Mennonite Quarterly Review (July, 2008), https://www.goshen.edu/mqr/2008/07/april-2008-millershearer/.

3. Rachel E. Harding and Vincent Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit: An Interview with Vincent Harding,” Callaloo 20, no. 3 (Summer, 1997), 688-689.

4. Tobin Miller Shearer, “A Prophet Pushed Out: Vincent Harding and the Mennonites,” Mennonite Life 69 (2015), https://mla.bethelks.edu/ml-archive/2015/a-prophet-pushed-out-vincent-harding-and-the-menno.php.

5. Rosemarie Freeney Harding with Rachel Elizabeth Harding, Remnants: A Memoir of Spirit, Activism, and Mothering (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015),128.

6. Quoted in Perry Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties: Mennonite Pacifism in Modern America (Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), 213.

7. Harding and Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit,” 688-89.

8. Ibid.

9. For Mennonites, the postwar era was one of acculturation and politicization. See Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties; Leo Driedger and Donald B. Kraybill, Mennonite Peacemaking: From Quietism to Activism (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1994). My research has located the Civil Rights Movement as the first challenge to and a significant catalyst of the half-decade long transformation of Mennonite theology and social action. See Alec Loganbill, “A New Responsibility: The Awakening of the Mennonite Social Conscience During the Civil Rights Era, 1950-1965,” Mennonite Life 73 (2019), https://ml.bethelks.edu.

10. Vincent and Rosemarie Harding, “Come to Atlanta,” The Mennonite, March 20, 1962, 205.

11. Harding and Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit,” 689.

12. Harding, Remnants, 130.

13. Ibid.

14. Harding and Harding, “Biography, Democracy, and Spirit,” 689.

15. Harding, Remnants, 132.

16. Ibid.,133.

17. Quoted in Shearer, Daily Demonstrators, 107.

18. Ibid., 142.

19. Harding, Remnants, 156.

20. Ibid., 157.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid., 133.

23. Ibid., 135-136

24. Quoted in Bush, Two Kingdoms, Two Loyalties, 213.

25. Shearer, Daily Demonstrators, 121.

26. Harding, “Come to Atlanta,” 205.

The Philosophical Legacy of Robert Friedmann

Maxwell Kennel

Robert Friedmann was born into a Jewish family in Vienna on June 9, 1891, and by the time he was twenty-three years old he had earned an engineering diploma and aspired to continue his education. His father, Dr. Peter Friedmann, was a physician and wanted Robert to become an engineer or physicist. But at the beginning of World War I in 1914 Robert Friedmann’s life took a different turn, and he became an officer, and eventually a lieutenant at the Italian front, in the army of Austria-Hungary for four years until 1918. Following the collapse of Austria-Hungary after WWI, in 1920 Robert Friedmann enrolled at the University of Vienna where he studied history and European philosophy, completing a dissertation on German philosophy in 1924, and then teaching for the next thirteen years at various colleges and technical schools in Vienna.1

Robert Friedmann (Provided by Author)

In November of 1938, during the Anschluss when Austria was being annexed by Germany, Robert Friedmann was imprisoned by the SS, just after the Kristallnacht on the morning of November 10. He writes of his imprisonment in a pseudonymous account published in the Neue Wege.2 After twelve days of imprisonment he and his wife were mysteriously released, and in the early days of 1939 Robert Friedmann and his wife Susi fled Austria, first spending six weeks in Switzerland and then staying in Sussex before immigrating to the United States. Friedmann’s arrival in the United States was orchestrated by Roland Bainton, a professor at Yale University, and after a short stay at that institution Friedmann connected with Harold S. Bender.3 Bender recalls the moment when Robert Friedmann and his wife Susi stepped off of the train in Goshen, Indiana, and into a new life “at 10:30 pm on a warm July night in 1940.”4 New to the United States, the Friedmann family attended Eighth Street Mennonite Church in Goshen, although Robert and Susi had joined the Reformed Church before leaving Europe. From 1940 to 1943 Robert Friedmann was a visiting lecturer and research fellow in Anabaptist Studies at Goshen College, but in 1944 his wife Susi died after a serious illness.

From 1945 onward Robert Friedmann taught at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. Although he had become interested in Anabaptism in the 1920s when he was working on Hutterite codices,5 and although he authored over two hundred articles on theological and historical themes in the Mennonite Encyclopedia, Friedmann had a long-standing interest in European philosophy and literature, particularly German philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Nietzsche and literary figures like Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky. This interest endured from his doctoral studies in the early 1920s to his time at Western Michigan College (later renamed Western Michigan University) where he taught introductory courses in history, philosophy, and ethics.

During that time, Friedmann taught a philosophy course on ethics and values called “Design for Living.”6 This course is exceptional for many reasons, not least of which is that few Mennonites taught philosophy courses in the 1950s.7 Robert Friedmann’s friend Leonard Gross recalls that Friedmann would diligently prepare for his lectures, but then would use only a few written notes instead of following his prepared material.8 His course called “Design for Living” was taught from 1948 to 1960, but in the middle of that time, in 1954, after the end of the school term, a student approach him and gave him a copy of his lectures that she had typed out. This came as a great surprise to Friedmann, and he used the opportunity to edit the text for publication, revising and rewriting the original oral lectures so that they would read well as a book. Unfortunately, Friedmann’s efforts to publish the manuscript as a book in 1956 were met with failure, and presumably he gave up on the manuscript in favor of other projects.9

Shortly before his death in 1970, Robert Friedmann gave copies of two book manuscripts to his friend Leonard Gross, with the hope that he would publish them. The first manuscript is one that he is well known for: The Theology of Anabaptism: An Interpretation, published by Herald Press in the Studies in Anabaptist Mennonite History Series in 1973. The second book manuscript, however, was Design for Living. Unlike Theology of Anabaptism the manuscript for Design for Living was rejected for publication by the Mennonite publishing house. In a letter dated March 13, 1972, an editor for Herald Press wrote to Leonard Gross, stating that they would not publish the manuscript because of the “limited market,” adding: “Now this sounds commercial, but if we can get no one to buy the book then no one will read it and it lies on our inventory shelves and this is not very pleasing to the publisher.”10 And so the manuscript for Design for Living sat in the Mennonite Church USA Archives from 1972 onward, being cited only a handful of times by Levi Miller and J. Lawrence Burkholder.11

In 2013 I began a research project on the relationship between Mennonites and philosophy, part of which meant I went looking for any use of philosophies or philosophers by Mennonite thinkers. After reading about Friedmann’s manuscript in J. Lawrence Burkholder’s entry on ‘Philosophy’ in the Mennonite Encyclopedia I acquired a digitized copy of Design for Living from the Mennonite Church USA Archives.12 In 2015 I began to work on an edited version of the manuscript, and by early 2017 I had secured a contract to publish the book with Wipf and Stock. While in contact with Robert Friedmann’s friend Leonard Gross and his sons John and Martin, I began to prepare the manuscript for publication, editing the text and adding some additional references. The more I worked on it the more I realized that the manuscript contained a wealth of insight into the very existential questions that initially spurred me toward graduate work in Religious Studies and the Philosophy of Religion. A scholarly exercise in doing editorial work on an old manuscript soon became part of my own moral convictions. In reading Friedmann’s lost manuscript I became convinced of its value because of its combination of Anabaptist and Mennonite values with the works of secular, philosophical, and literary figures.

Friedmann’s insight in Design for Living is that the good life is about regard, concern, service, and love.13 Friedmann wants to educate the heart, and he begins by citing Ezekiel 36:26 and its promise of a new heart of human flesh rather than a cold and inflexible heart of stone (1). His first goal in the book is to make more sensitive the hearts of his readers without avoiding the challenges and complexities of life, and the seriousness of the task of living. Design for Living implores the reader to examine their values and priorities – and Friedmann defines values as those things we prioritize and put first, those things we spend our time and energy on, and those things we sacrifice other things for. For Friedmann the most important concern that we ought to have is for the meaning of life, and he thinks that the quest to understand life’s meaning requires a reorientation of the heart and the mind amidst the violent conflicts of the world (2-3). Friedmann calls out to his readers, arguing against apathy and disinterest, contending that life is about more than gaining personal pleasures like money, sex, or power (11-19), and challenging the hegemony of self-interest (20-23). Against hedonism and conventional morality, Friedmann pushes his reader to move beyond mere reception of values, and toward intentional living (23-26).

Friedmann begins by establishing a minimum ethics: a basic moral standard to which all people ought to be held. At base he argues that we should be decent to each other (26-29), although I worry that language of ‘decency’ is still too embedded in the colonial project of propriety and education. Friedmann argues within a western Jewish and Christian paradigm, suggesting that his reader should consider the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule to be basic standards of secular morality (29-36). For Friedmann, without these foundational guides we are already missing something, and he argues that we cannot afford to be indifferent, given the seriousness of our task to figure out what exactly it means to live, and to discern what is morally required of us (37-40). For Friedmann, mutual responsibility is basic, and without it we cannot ascend toward the goal of a truly meaningful life.

Preparing his reader for the ascent to his positive answer, chapter 2 of Design for Living insists that the reader look outside of themselves and consider the needs and suffering of others in the world that we share. Through confession (chapter 3) and an acknowledgment of the inherent difficulty of life (chapter 4), Friedmann builds a four-part framework upon which he argues we should scaffold our moral life, our religious life (if any), and our everyday life. Anticipating objections with a substantial preparatory section, Friedmann provides four steps that build upward toward the meaning of human life. He begins with Regard, which “means to take the other person fully as a person” (119). When we look at another person, we need to see them for who they are, rather than reducing them to an object or dehumanizing them by considering them to be less than ourselves. This is the first step, required of all people so that those from different backgrounds can live well together, both politically and socially. The next step is Concern, which “affirms our interrelatedness, our belonging together” (119-120). Concern means that we not only understand the other as a person, but that we take another step toward them by caring for them. I can see someone else as human, but it may take some effort, self-awareness, and education of desire to feel care toward them. The third step requires the first two. Friedmann writes that “service presupposes the two earlier steps: regard for the fellow human being as a person, and concern for this fellow person and their affairs by an inner participation. In service these steps now become activated into a doing” (120). When we act on our care for others by actually serving them and taking care of them, then we move to Friedmann’s penultimate step on the ladder of human meaning and purpose – his design for living.

The final step on the ladder is Love, and Friedmann understands that love cannot be commanded or legislated without defeating its aspirations. For Friedmann, love “is the crowning of all endeavors to fill life with value and meaning and to be interrelated with our fellow people.” (120). After presents his fourfold principle in summary, Friedmann concludes the book with a postscript that begins with a quotation by H.E. Fosdick: “Life consists not simply in what heredity and environment do to us but in what we make out of what they do to us.” (169).

These issues are not abstract for him, for he struggled to find work in America after he fled Austria in 1940, and many of his job applications were rejected because he was a refugee. The Mennonite Church USA Archives preserves papers that document his struggle to find work in a culture that was suspicious of European immigrants. Prejudice lived then, and it does now. Friedmann saw this and understood it. But he did not become bitter and resentful, despite the difficulty of trying to support a family on a low income. Without resorting to a cheap redemption narrative that covers over suffering and violence, and contrary to contemporary politics of resentment, Friedmann became resilient and turned his negative experiences into fuel for a critical and positive philosophy of human values, encouraging his students at Western Michigan University to consider their social responsibility for those around them.

At its best, this is exemplary of the underground tradition of philosophical and secular humanism in the Anabaptist Mennonite tradition. As I looked into his life, I found that Friedmann’s identity was much more complex than it is often presented, and cannot be fully captured by the Mennonite name. Throughout his career Friedmann’s identity shifted and changed and I explore some of these changes in my preface to Design for Living.14 But there is more work to be done exploring the complexities of Friedmann’s self-understanding. He identified as a “Jew who sides with Christ” in the 1930s, he situated himself between religious socialists and Anabaptists in the 1950s, and he regularly attended a Quaker meeting in his late life.15 In a footnote to his work on Hans Denck, Clarence Bauman makes an intriguing suggestion:

Robert Friedmann, more than any other Anabaptist scholar, recognized in his own educated heart [a reference to the first chapter of Design for Living, which Bauman read] the implicit Jewishness of Anabaptist spirituality, though in his writings he himself hardly dared to make this connection explicit – possibly for personal reasons – and, instead, identified the genius of Anabaptist ‘existential Christianity.’16

It is not out of the question, then, to consider Bauman’s suggestion that Friedmann’s identity may have been more than just primarily Mennonite, but also may have been akin to the Jewish Marrano phenomenon. Elsewhere, in a forthcoming book chapter titled “Secular Mennonite Social Critique: Pluralism, Interdisciplinarity, and Mennonite Studies”, I argue that complex identities like Friedmann’s must be considered within the scope of Mennonite Studies, both because they challenge the dominant narrative of Mennonite identity from within and because they show the entanglement of philosophical and secular sensibilities within a Mennonite figure.


Maxwell Kennel is a PHD candidate in the Department of Religious Studies at McMaster University where he has taught courses on religion and violence and methodological approaches to the study of religion. He has published articles on postsecular approaches to time and history in Studies in ReligionTelosrhizomes, and Political Theology, and articles on Mennonite topics in Literature & TheologyMennonite Quarterly Review, and Journal of Mennonite Studies. In 2017 he edited Mennonite historian Robert Friedmann’s manuscript Design for Living: Regard, Concern, Service, and Love (Wipf & Stock), and in 2021 he will edit a special issue of Political Theology on Mennonite Political Theology. His dissertation is on ontologies and epistemologies of violence in the works of Jacques Derrida, Mennonite philosophical theologians, and the late work of philosopher of religion Grace M. Jantzen. 


1. Robert Friedmann, Das Harmonieprinzip in der Metaphysik, ein problemgeschichtlicher Versuch, dargestellt an Haupttypen [The Principle of Harmony in Metaphysics: A Study in the History of Philosophy] Doctoral Dissertation, University of Vienna, 1924. 128 pp. Examined by J. Döller, F.E. Suess, and R. Much. A copy of the dissertation can be found in Box 20 of the Robert Friedmann Papers, housed in the MCUSA Archives, in Elkhart, Indiana.

2. Robert Friedmann (pseudonym Peter Worb), “Gott shuf den Menschen nach seinem Bilde [God Created Man in his own Image].” Neue Wege (1939): 335-337. Trans. Elizabeth Bender. Mennonite Quarterly Review 48 (April 1974): 174-176.

3. “Conversations with Robert Friedmann,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 48 (April 1974): 141-173.

4. See Steve Nolt, “The Spiritual Journey of Robert Friedmann,” (https://8thstmennonite.org/?page_id=3777).

5. See his description in Robert Friedmann, “Ein persönlicher Bericht als Vorwort,” in Die Schriften Der Hutterischen Täufergemeinschaften: Gesamtskatalog Ihrer Manuskriptbücher, Ihrer Schreiber, Ihrer Literatur 1529-1667. Zusammengestelt von Robert Friedmann, unter mitarbeit von Adolf Mais (Hermann Böhlaus, 1965).

6. For his lecture notes see Box 60, 4/48 “Ethics, Design for Living Course” and 4/49 “Design for Living,” Robert Friedmann Papers.

7. See the brief survey of Mennonites who taught philosophy courses in Delbert Weins, “Philosophy and Mennonite Self-Understanding” in Mennonite Identity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives. Ed. Calvin Wall Redekop with Samuel J. Steiner (London: University Press of America, 1988), 117-135.

8. See Leonard Gross, “Foreword: Robert Friedmann: His Life, His Philosophy,” in Robert Friedmann, Design for Living: Regard, Concern, Service, and Love. Ed. Maxwell Kennel (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), x.

9. The Friedmann Papers collection, Box 28, contains reader reports for the publisher Rider and Co. (then an imprint of Ebury publishing, which is now a part of Penguin), dating from June 1956. Of the two reports, one recommends publication and the other recommends rejection. Presumably, the manuscript was rejected by Rider and Co.

10. Box 25. Letter from Herald Press to Leonard Gross, dated March 13, 1972.

11. Levi Miller, “Leo Tolstoy and the Mennonites.” Journal of Mennonite Studies 16 (1998) 163-180.

12. I have since written an update to this entry: “Philosophy” Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Philosophy (April 2020).

13. Robert Friedmann, Design for Living: Regard, Concern, Service, and Love. Ed. Maxwell Kennel. Foreword by Leonard Gross (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2017), page references in-text.

14. “Discovering the Other Friedmann,” in Friedmann, Design for Living, xv-xx. (https://maxwellkennel.files.wordpress.com/2018/03/dfl-excerpt.pdf)

15. Astrid von Schlachta, “Robert Friedmann—Searching for the Meaning of Faith for the World,” in Robert Friedmann, Hutterite Studies: Celebrating the Life and Work of an Anabaptist Scholar. Ed. Harold S. Bender. 2nd Ed (MacGregor, Manitoba: Hutterian Brethren Book Centre, 2010).

16. Clarence Bauman, “Denck’s Spirituality,” in The Spiritual Legacy of Hans Denck: Interpretation and Translation of Key Texts (Leiden: Brill, 1991), 44, note 139. I am grateful to Jamie Pitts for bring this to my attention.

Searching for Mary Mathilda (Davidson) Yoder

Recently a post on the Brethren in Christ historical website caught my attention: “’I am about to go abroad as a Missionary’: H. Frances Davidson’s Passport Application and what it tells us about Brethren in Christ Life.”1 I was captured by the fine pensmanship of the witness: Mrs. Mary M. Yoder. Denominational historian Morris Sider has characterized Davidson as “one of the most extraordinary and striking persons to have held membership in the denomination.”2 Who was the witness that attested Davidson’s bold declaration of life-long commitment to mission, underscored by the striking of the “entire section of the form dealing with returning to the States!”3 Are there clues that suggest why Frances chose Mary to accompany her to the notary’s office on that October day in 1897? In the bigger picture, will discovering more about Mary provide further insights into the Brethren in Christ of the time?

I knew Mary Yoder to be Frances’s half sister, the eldest of their father Henry Davidson’s thirteen children. Geneological research has revealed that she was among his numerous offspring who exited the Brethren in Christ denomination.4 It also suggests that she was the namesake of her paternal grandmother Mary (Young) Davidson. Mary Mathilda Davidson was fifteen when Frances was born; by the end of her step-mother Fannie (Rice) Davidson’s child-bearing years, Mary had become the eldest of thirteen. Married at age twenty-two to Christian B. Yoder, she gave birth to Effa when Frances was eight years old; by the time Fannie birthed her last child, Ida, Mary was mother to three.5 The birth of LeRoy Isaiah would complete the family. Edwin’s death as a small child must have torn at Mary’s heart; her decision to name her two younger sons for her full brothers William and Isaiah, likely brought her comfort and suggests the closeness of the larger family circle which had been wrenched with the death of their biological mother Hannah (Craft) Davidson when Mary and her siblings were still children.6

Mary would continue to suffer and navigate significant losses. In 1893, four years before she signed her sister’s passport, she had been widowed; she was not yet fifty. Mary’s married name suggests that her husband Christian B. Yoder had Amish roots. They were both raised on farms close to Smithville, Ohio, where they had met and married. Christian had practiced a variety of trades including building, contracting, and grocering, ultimately becoming a hotel manager. The purchase of Eastern House in the nearby city of Wooster brought him to the pinnacle of his career. Only a year before his death he had become “proprietor of the hotel bearing his name,” Hotel Yoder, described in Caldwell’s Atlas in 1897 as “the Oldest Reliable Hotel in the city.”7

Although it remains unclear what role Mary played in Christian’s business enterprise, her identity as entrepreneur is underscored by her decision to hold Christian’s funeral at Yoder House, rather than the Methodist Episcopal Church where they were members. Shortly, Mary M. Yoder herself became the proprietor of Yoder House where,,with the assistance of her sons William and Roy, she continued to run the hotel renovated and branded by her husband Christian only a year before his untimely death.8

Eighteen months later tragedy again devastated Mary and her family. Twenty year old Roy succumbed to typhoid; Mary lost her son to the same disease that had taken her mother Hannah forty years earlier. Demonstrating a strength of character reminiscent of that for which her sister Frances is known, Mary continued to run Yoder Hotel with her remaining son William as manager.9 Census records reveal that Mary employed eleven live-in servants and employees – a laundress, cooks, chambermaids, waitresses, a porter and a solicitor – to keep the establishment running.10

Why did Frances Davidson, the renowned Brethren in Christ pioneer missionary, have her sister, the Methodist Episcopal owner of a prestigious downtown hotel, witness her first passport? Why did Frances choose Mary to attest to subsequent passports? A brief exploration of the Methodist Episcopal Church where Mary and Christian Yoder held their membership gives a clue. The denomination was a strong proponant of missions overseas and at home, working in “some of the most deprived urban areas of the nation.”11 Was Mary an active supporter of the local missionary societies in the Wooster Methodist Episcopal Church? Confirmation would require further research.

The 1914 Brechbill Reunion in Garrett, Indiana, while Frances was on furlough writing South and South Central Africa

What is becoming clear is Mary’s unflagging support of her younger sister’s mission. Not only was Mary Davidson Yoder recorded as witness on each one of Frances’s passports through the latter’s twenty-four years in the Rhodesias (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), it is quite likely that we have Mary to thank for Frances’s travelogue.12 As Frances noted in her journal on 26 December 1908, “Sister Mary writes that she wants me to be sure and keep up my diary. Well, I have never kept a diary only these few jottings in a journal which are so few that they give only a general outline of our life and scarcely that.”13 A few months later, she confided to her journal: “I have not told any one of my resignation except I wrote it to Sister Mary, as also some of the particulars. She is away from the rest.”14

Does this sideline into family history have anything to tell us about the history of the Brethren in Christ? Brethren in Christ history has been assessed and written, for the most part, by insiders, to build a denominational identity.15 The excerpts from Frances Davidson’s journal published in Brethren in Christ History & Life some decades back were edited for just this purpose. Missing excerpts, which can now be found on the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives website, if read closely, reveal just how important Frances Davidson’s family relationships were, including the many siblings and nieces and nephews outside of the denomination.16

Elsewhere I have argued that Mary’s and Frances’s father Henry Davidson used his influence as editor of The Evangelical Visitor to bring the denomination into the burgeoning nineteenth-century mainstream evangelical movement with its promotion of education and mission.17 While family history suggests that their father was disappointed that so few of his children remained in the Brethren in Christ denomination, Mary M. Yoder’s signature on Hannah Frances Davidson’s passport confirms a closeness and common vision for mission between the two sisters.18

This brief glimpse into the life of the witness to a late nineteeth-century passport that symbolizes dramatic changes in the Brethren in Christ, leaves significant questions. What influence did Mary Mathilda (Davidson) Yoder have on her father Henry Davidson? Did her immersion in mainstream culture by virtue of membership in a prominent evangelical church ultimately influence the direction of the Brethren in Christ? Although history is still silent on this count, the Davidson family’s decision to lay their father to rest next to his first wife and Mary’s mother Hannah (Craft) Davidson, in the circle that included her husband Christian and sons LeRoy and Edwin Yoder hints at the relationship of father and daughter. Mary’s unflagging support of her sister Frances Davidson during the latter’s twenty-four years in the Rhodesias suggests a heretofore undiscovered cheerleader and supporter for her sister held up by the Brethren in Christ for her role as pioneer missionary.


1. Devin C. Thomas, “’I am about to go abroad as a Missionary’: H. Frances Davidson’s Passport Application and what it tells ua about Brethren in Christ Life.” Brethren in Christ Historical Society https://bic-history.org/i-am-about-to-go-abroad-as-a-missionary-h-frances-davidsons-passport-application-and-what-it-tells-us-about-brethren-in-christ-life-2/ ; National Archives and Records Administration (NARA); Washington D.C.; Roll #.496 – 01 October 1897-31 October 1897, Ancestry.com ,U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2007; Accessed 14 May 2020. Thomas has made several insightful observations about what the passport can tell us about the mindset of the Brethren in Christ of the late nineteenth century, especially as he put it, Davidson’s “unwavering commitment to her church’s foreign mission endeavor.”

2. Nine Portraits: Brethren in Christ Biographical Sketches (Nappanee, Indiana: Evangel Press, 1978), 159.

3. Thomas declares this to be his favourite part of the document.

4. Earl Brechbill, “The Ancestry of John and Henrietta Davidson Brechbill: A Historical Narrative” (Greencastle, PA: printed by author, 1972), 26, 34.

5. “Henry R. and Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson: Life and Vision, Brethren in Christ History & Life XLI, no. 2 (August 2018), 115-117, n. 2, 3 4, 10, 11; Brechbill, “Ancestry,” 52, 55-57.

6. “Our Dead, Christian B. Yoder,” Evangelical Visitor, Vol. II, no. 6 (1 March 1893), 80; reprinted from The Wayne County (Wooster, Ohio) Herald (9 February 1893); Year: 1870, Census Place: Orrville, Wayne, Ohio; Roll 14593_1280; page 242B, 1870 U.S. Federal Census [data base-on-line], Provost, USA, Ancestry.com operations, Inc. Accessed 13 June 2020.

7. “Peace to His Ashes,” Wooster Daily Republican (6 February 1893); Caldwell’s Atlas (1897), Wooster, Ohio https://wiki.wcpl.info/w/index.php?title=Caldwell%27s_Atlas_(1897)/Wooster,_Ohio Accessed 27 May 2020.

8. Although “Peace to his Ashes,” ibid., gives no inkling of church affiliation, it does tell us that “’Christ’ Yoder was a quiet, unassuming Christian gentleman who enjoyed the confidence of all with whom he did business, a father who loved his family and lived for them.” The obituary in the Wayne County Herald gives a brief nod to his membership in “the M.E. Church;” reprinted in “Our Dead, Christian B. Yoder,” Evangelical Visitor (1 March 1893), 80; “Our Dead,” LeRoy Yoder, Evangelical Visitor (1 November 1894), reprinted from Wayne County Herald.

9. Brechbill, “Ancestry,” 56; LeRoy Yoder obituary, Wayne County Herald, cited in “Our Dead,” Evangelical Visitor (1 November 1894).

10. “Our Dead, Christian B. Yoder,” Evangelical Visitor, Vol. II, no. 6 (1 March 1893), 80; Wm. W. Yoder, 1900 US Federal Census, Census Place: Mansfield Ward 6, Richland, Ohio, 13, Ancestry.com, 1900 US Federal Census database on line], Provo, UT, USA, Ancestry.com Operations, Inc. 2014, Accessed 18 May 2020.

11. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianitiy: Vol. II The Reformation to the Present Day, revised and updated (NY: Harper and Collins, 2010), 339; see also Diarmaid McCulloch, Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (London: Penguin Books, 2009), 903; “Woman’s Foreign Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Woman%27s_Foreign_Missionary_Society_of_the_Methodist_Episcopal_Church Accessed 11 June 2020.

12. The photo, labeled Brechbill Reunion 1914, took place in Garrett, Indiana, while Frances was on furlough writing South and South Central Africa (Elgin, Ill: Brethren Publishing House, 1915). The photo is scanned from “The Journal of Frances Davidson. Part V: The Later Years (1908-1931), Brethren in Christ History and Life IX, no. 3 (December 1986), 286. Images of Davidson’s passports appear in Ancestry.com. U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line] (Lehi, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2007); Original data: Selected Passports, National Archives, Washington, D.C. Accessed 15 May 2020.

13. H. Frances Davidson Diaries 6 (December 26, 1908) http://bicarchives.messiah.edu/files/Documents4/Hfd_diary_vol_6_aug_19,1906_to_dec_31,1909.pdf Accessed 22 June 2020.

14. Ibid. HFD Diaries 6 (April 21, 1909). Their father Henry Davidson’s obituary reveals that the Brethren in Christ contingent of the family lived in Abilene, Kansas and Garrett, Indiana. Mary had remained in Ohio. Wooster Weekly Republican, (25 March 1903), p. 4, col. 3, p. 5, col. 1.

15. Wendy Urban-Meade’s perspective on the Brethren in Christ mission in the Rhodesias (Zimbabwe and Zambia) as an outsider to the denomination has illustrated the inward focus of most history of the Brethren in Christ. Please see “An Unwomanly Woman and Her Sons in Christ: Faith, Empire, and Gender in Colonial Rhodesia, 1899-1906,” 94-116, in Competing Kingdoms: Women, Mission, Nation, and the American Protestant Empire, 1812-1960, edited by Barbara Reeves-Ellington, Kathryn Kish Sklar, and Connie A. Shemo (Durham & London: Duke University Press, 2010); and The Gender of Piety: Family, Faith, and Colonial Rule in Matabeleland, Zimbabwe (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press, 2015); Morris Sider’s recently published retrospective “Finding Vocation and Mission: Reflections on Writing Brethren in Christ History,” Brethren in Christ History & Life Vol. XLIII, no. 1 (April 2020) gives helpful insight into his motivation for dedicating his professional career to advancing the history of the Brethren in Christ.

16. H. Frances Davidson Diaries http://bicarchives.messiah.edu/files/Documents4/Hfd_diary_vol_2_sept_17,1893_to_may_17,1898.pdf Accessed 28 May 2020.

17. “Henry R. And Frances (Fannie) Rice Davidson,” 148; Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington and George A. Rawlyk, Evangelicalism:ComparativeStudiesofPopularProtestantisminNorthAmerica,TheBritishIsles,andBeyond,1700-1990 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 6, 9.

18. Brechbill, “Ancestry,” 142; I have told of my search for Henry Davidson’s burial site in “Life and Vision,” 117, n. 9.

Surprising finds: Mennonites in Mexico and archives of movement

Kat Hill

The National Archives in Kew, London seems an unlikely place to find records for Mennonite history; Mennonites have never been a major presence in the UK and the London Mennonite Centre closed in 2010.1 But documents are funny things and end up in odd places. On a visit to check out some material related to early modern migrations, I typed in ‘Mennonite’ to find a series of documents held by the Foreign Office and the Dominions Office, relating to Mennonites in Mexico and Europe in the twentieth century.

FIgure 1: The National Archives, London, Image from https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/project-alpha-building-an-archive-for-everyone/

One cache of documents deals with British discussions about European Mennonites who were part of the complex negotiations over displaced persons and refugees after the Second World War.2 Others discuss emigration plans after World War Two.3 One very rich collection, and the focus of this piece, relates to the back and forth conversations in the 1930s between Mennonite communities in Mexico, the British Consulate, and Mexican and Canadian authorities.4 Some items are official reports of government representatives, others handwritten scrawls by individual Mennonites. The documents reveal a story about changing definitions of identity, shifting borders and nations, and movement in the interwar period, and how Mennonites tackled these challenges. Focusing in on these allow us to examine the way in which citizenship changed as the British Empire disintegrated and as states and nations redefined themselves. And it also reminds us of the complex archival remnants which are the legacy of movement and migration.

FIgure 2: One of the folders with documents related to Mennonites in Mexico, THe ational Archives. Image Kat Hill.

Moving to Mexico

Around 8000 Mennonites left Manitoba and Saskatchewan to head to northern Mexico in the early 1920s. Demands placed on Canadian communities by a series of governmental acts, including the use of the English language in schools and compulsory attendance at recognized educational establishments, drove some Mennonites to seek out a location where they could avoid these restrictions.5 After investigating possibilities in several south American countries, they were able secure privileges from Álvaro Obregon, president of Mexico.

But in the 1930s, dissatisfaction set in. The threat of similar restrictions on schooling and Mennonite ways of life from the Mexican authorities, as well as increasing violence and conflict with indigenous Mexican communities, prompted restlessness and thoughts of migration. Some talked of a return to Canada, but in a letter to British Consul-General Joseph Pyke, P.H. Peters also mooted the possibility of transplanting communities to Australia.6 As they considered the possibility of return, Mennonites asked for British passports: Canada was an independent British Dominion. In the end, a mass return to Canada never happened, but the stack of papers housed in south west London give glimpses into the decisions, negotiations, and the lives of theses communities in myriad ways.7

New Languages of citizenship and movement

As some Mennonites in Mexico sought to return to Canada, they navigated a political landscape of shifting nations, empires and states which deployed novel and emergent vocabularies about citizenship and migration in the interwar world. Many nations hardened their borders and tightened up controls after World War One, at the same time as economic transformation and political upheaval caused mass movement of people, with rising numbers of refugees and migrants.8 Vocabularies reflected this reality. Writing to Gerhard D. Klassen in April 1936, the Acting British Consul-General J.D. Murray listed the evidence needed for British nationality, talked about naturalization, and underscored the importance of authorized documentation.9 In October of the same year, the Canadian Department of External Affairs made it very clear that a medical officer and immigration official had to assess any returning migrants to stop the entry of ‘undesirable’ individuals.10

Figure 3: Extract from Laurent Beaudry’s letter to the British Consul-General, 29 October 1936.

Living in a country recently torn apart by revolution and coming from an independent Dominion of the British Empire, Mennonites in Durango and Chihuahua encountered the structures and institutions of the British, Canadian and Mexican authorities. They also looked back to their lives under Tsarist rule before they had emigrated west at the end of the nineteenth century. The documents lay bare the reality of living lives across borders and regimes. Jacob Klassen, who wanted a British passport, was born in Lekopol, Russia in November 1876, and naturalized in Canada in 1908, with papers to prove this. He counted as a British subject, and his wife and child, born in Saskatchewan in 1923, could also be included in this definition as long as records of the marriage and birth could be verified. Being a British subject mattered when dealing with the authorities, but it remains unclear how important this categorization was for the Klassen family’s own sense of belonging.11 The demands of citizenship and the language of nationalism also hint at some of the tensions in new classifications which did not always sit easily with Mennonite conceptions of community. Being a national subject was at odds with many of the ways in which Mennonites perceived themselves as separate communities who resisted the demands of nations and states. Yet these games of belonging mattered in official discussions. Writing to Pyke, Cornelius D. Fehr signed off as ‘Your very friend and British subject’ and gave his passport number, appealing to Pyke’s emotional and national loyalties.12

Documenting identity

Klassen and Fehr’s cases underscore the reality that movement between regimes and authorities required the right papers. Different regimes had different ways of indexing identities, whilst Mennonites themselves kept their own records. The archives reveal the way in which the requirements of documentation by nations and states intertwined and often clashed with the record-keeping practices of Mennonites communities. Mennonites requesting the right of return to Canada and negotiating for British passports had to prove the dates and locations of births and marriages. John P. Wall, Mennonite representative for the Durango church, wrote to Pyke in April detailing responses to Pyke’s questions about the documentation kept by the Mennonites. Their original records had stayed with the church in Canada, but they did have copies.13 Even if Mennonites could prove the details of births or marriages from their own church records, registered with the Mennonite elders, these may not have been verified by the various local authorities and would not be considered proof in their own right. The question of children who had been born in Mexico and to a couple whose marriage may not have been recognized by the relevant authorities was particularly fraught. Pyke wrote to W.C. Rempel of the Blumenort church to say that for children to be considered legitimate, he needed an endorsement from the Mexican authorities that any marriages were legally contracted and officially recognized as such by the Mexican authorities. The official date had to predate the birth date of any children.14

As Fehr’s signoff in his letter to Pyke indicates, definitions of identity inscribed on papers and forms were complex and confused. A Mexican identity card for Margarethe Dyck reflected the entanglements and compromises across cultures, citing her nationality as Canadian but her religion as Mennonite; the identity card itself was of course written in Spanish for the Mexican authorities.15 What these differences meant for lived experience and subjectivities is harder to uncover, although Fehr’s letter hints at the way in which ideas about belonging changed and could even be used by Mennonites. As they have always done, confessional belief, birthplace, language, and culture all shaped notions of belonging, but these practices and expressions were also applied in new ways as they intertwined with the demands of national sovereignty.

Migrant lives, culture and violence

Finally, the documents reveal something of the migrant lives of Mennonite communities, both in the contents of their letters and the materiality of the documents themselves. The very fact these records have ended up in London in The National Archives, with other documents residing in Mexican and Canadian archives and others undoubtedly in family collections, bears witness to the types of archives which resulted from migration. Each document, too, in its physicality tell us story. We can contrast the neatly typed missives of the authorities and official, sometimes adorned with offhand marginalia, with the poorly expressed hand scribbled note of an individual Mennonite.16 Archivalities always tell their own stories.

Figure 4: Extract from Gerhard D. Klassen’s note to the British Consul-General, 21 April 1936.
Figure 5: Marginal Note by Canadian Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs

There are of course silences in the records and stories not told. This is a record of men and their negotiations – the women and children who are talked about so often in the documents do not feature as individuals. A marginal note on a letter from the Canadian Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs reveals the dismissive attitudes: on the subject of wives and unmarried children joining family heads established Canada, exempt from certain immigration conditions, he merely writes ‘Presumably does not arise!’17 And there is the deafening silence of what local Mexican communities made of the presence of Mennonites in their landscape, who also battled for land and rights, or who entered into violent altercations with the neighbors who remained very distant despite their physical proximity. But this remarkable set of documents, in their detail and their silences, their contents and their materiality, give us a window onto questions of land, movement, violence and identity which continue to be asked in the present day.18


[1] Harriet Sherwood, ‘UK Mennonites end Sunday services after numbers dwindle’, The Guardian, 16 March 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/16/uk-mennonites-end-sunday-services-after-numbers-dwindle, accessed 16 April 2020.

[2] The National Archives (TNA), FO 1050/1565; FO 1043/2579; FO 945/480.Packet_Emails_2010

[3] See for example TNA, FO 371/126537.

[4] TNA DO 35/679/7; DO 35/814/8; FO 723/720; FO 723/721.

[5] Luann Good Gingrich, Out of Place: Social Exclusion and Mennonite Migrants in Canada (Toronto: Univeristy of Toronto Press, 2016),15; Royden Loewen, Village Among Nations: Canadian” Mennonites in a Transnational World, 19162006 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 40–79.

[6] TNA, FO 723/271, 2 June 1935, P.H. Peters to British Consul-General Joseph Pyke.

[7] Other places also featured as suggested destinations. For more details on the discussions over a possible return and the situation in the 1930s see Loewen, Village Among Nations, 120 –165

[8] See for example Daniela L. Cagliotti, ‘Subjects, Citizens, and Aliens in a Time of Upheaval: Naturalization and Denaturalization in Europe during the First World War’, The Journal of Modern History 89 (2017), 495–530; John Torpey, ‘Coming and Going: On the State Monopolization of the Legitimate ‘Means of Movement’, Sociological Theory 16.3 (1998), 239–259; Claudena M. Skran, Refugees in Inter-War Europe: The Emergence of a Regime (Oxford: OUP, 1995).

[9] TNA, FO 723/271 28 April 1936, J.D. Murray Acting British Consul-General to Gerhard D. Klassen.

[10] TNA, FO 723/271 29 October 1936, Laurent Beaudry Acting Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs Canada to British Consul-General, fo. 1.

[11] TNA, FO 723/271 16 September 1936, Laurent Beaudry Acting Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs Canada to British Consul-General, fo. 1.

[12] TNA, FO 723/271 2 April 1936, Cornelius D. Fehr to Pyke to Joseph Pyke British Consul-General, fo. 2.

[13] TNA, FO 723/271, 6 April 1935, John P. Wall to Joseph Pyke British Consul-General.

[14] National Archives, FO 723/271, 28 March 1936, Joseph Pyke British Consul-General Pyke to W.C. Rempel.

[15] Janzen, Liminal Sovereignty, 20.

[16] TNA, FO 723/271, 21 April 1936, Gerhard. D. Klassen to J.D. Murray Acting British Consul-General.

[17] TNA, FO 723/271, 18 February 1936, Acting Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs Canada to British Consul-General, fo. 2.

[18] See for example Rebecca Janzen’s recent piece, ‘Mexican Mennonites combat fears of violence with a new Christmas tradition’, The Conversation, 11 December 2019, https://theconversation.com/mexican-mennonites-combat-fears-of-violence-with-a-new-christmas-tradition-127982, accessed 19 April 2020.

An Anabaptist Anti-Racist Reading List

Rowena Lark teaching Bible school. Lark’s husband, James, was the first African American minister ordained in the Mennonite church (1944). [Caption edited 6/19/2020]

The brutal murder of George Floyd has exposed again the systematic injustices perpetrated by institutions of power against black and brown people in the United States and around the world. We, the board of Anabaptist Historians, are enraged and heartbroken. To stand in solidarity with those protesting police violence and interrelated forms of institutionalized racism, we have put together the following Anabaptist Anti-Racist Reading List. We have been inspired by other anti-racist reading lists recently circulated, and we hope our contribution will be as useful as possible for readers. We have thus compiled specifically Anabaptist ways of saying: Black Lives Matter.

This Anabaptist Anti-Racist Reading List features short and online-accessible articles and essays on the relationships between Anabaptist history and matters of race, racism, and violence. Each thematic section also includes suggestions for further readings, including articles and books that may require purchase. In such cases, we recommend supporting local bookstores, ordering used copies, or you can submit a purchase or interlibrary loan request through your local library. And of course, if you like what you read, be sure to share recommendations with friends and family!

Overview

Anabaptists over the past five hundred years have been deeply entangled with racism and racial violence. From European imperial expansion and the Dutch slave trade to settler colonialism and displacement of native peoples, the origins and development of Anabaptist churches have been shaped and reformed in crucibles of injustice. As individuals and as communities, Anabaptists have struggled with these contexts, often developing sophisticated ways of naming and resisting state violence although more typically deploying such strategies to serve themselves than others.

If the story of Anabaptism is inextricably bound to race and racism, then the process of doing Anabaptist history must be understood as an anti-racist calling. The readings highlighted below share a common mission to bring about a more equal church and a more just future. Historians may take different approaches toward this end. Some uncover troubling examples of racism in the church. Others explore cases when Anabaptists meaningfully spoke truth to power within their own denominational contexts or beyond. All recognize that these stories resonate today.

We acknowledge the profound incompleteness of this anti-racist reading list. The brokenness of our wider society impedes efforts to fully grasp systemic injustice. Working toward restitution will mean changing how we think about the Anabaptist past alongside reformulating our public institutions. We invite readers to submit further reading suggestions in the moderated comments section. We also welcome submissions and pitches for short historical essays and think-pieces. Anabaptist Historians looks forward to publishing a new anti-racism series over the coming year.

Readings by Topic

1) African Americans and Anabaptism

Melody Marie Pannell, “A Radical Love in Harlem: Resolve, Resilience and Restoration (Part 1: 1952-1975),” Anabaptist Historians, November 24, 2017.

Regina Shands Stoltzfus, “Mennonites, Mission and Race: The Cleveland Experiment,” Anabaptist Historians,November 15, 2016.

Further Reading:

  • Regina Shands Stoltzfus, “The Unexpected and Complicated Presence of African American Women in Mennonite Churches” (PhD diss., Chicago Theological Seminary, 2017).
  • Jeffrey Phillip Gingerich, “Sharing the Faith: Racial and Ethnic Identity in an Urban Mennonite Community” (PhD diss., University of Pennsylvania, 2003).

2) Anabaptists and the Black Freedom Struggle

Tobin Miller Shearer, “Martin and the Mennonites: Lessons From King’s Legacy for Today,” Anabaptist Historians, January 20, 2020.

Tobin Miller Shearer, “State of the Race: A Short History of Mennonite Racial Statements, 1940-1979,” Anabaptist Historians, October 3, 2019.

Further Reading:

  • Tobin Miller Shearer, Daily Demonstrators: The Civil Rights Movement in Mennonite Homes and Sanctuaries (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 2010).
  • Tobin Miller Shearer, Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2017).

3) Imperialism, Slavery, and Settler Colonialism

Marvin E. Kroeker, “Natives and Settlers: The Mennonite Invasion of Indian Territory,” Mennonite Life 61, no. 2 (2006): online.

Ben Goossen, “Mennonites and Empire,” Anabaptist Historians, September 21, 2018.

Further Reading:

  • James Lehman, Mennonites, Amish, and the American Civil War (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007).
  • Anthony Siegrist, “‘Part of the Authority Structure’: An Organizational History of Mennonite Indian Residential Schools in Ontario,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 93, no. 1 (2019): 5-38.

4) Anabaptists, Immigration, and Nativism

Felipe Hinojosa, “Place Matters,” Anabaptist Historians, September 22, 2016.

Felipe Hinojosa, “Hazel’s People,” Anabaptist Historians,January 12, 2017.

Further Reading:

5) Gender, Race, and Anabaptist Women

Regina Shands Stoltzfus, “Juanita Lark Building Dedication at Goshen College,” Anabaptist Historians, February 16, 2017.

Regina Shands Stoltzfus, “Telling All of Our Stories as a Movement To Peace,” Anabaptist Historians,August 24, 2017.

Further Reading:

  • Anita Hooley Yoder, “In A Reunion Like This We Can Share,” Anabaptist Historians, August 31, 2017.
  • Kimberly Schmidt, “Moneneheo and Naheverein: Cheyenne and Mennonite Sewing Circles, Convergences and Conflicts, 1890-1970,” Great Plains Quarterly 31, no. 1 (2011): 3-22.

6) Anabaptists and White Supremacy

Ben Goossen, “The Pacifist Roots of an American Nazi,” Boston Review, May 2, 2019.

Tobin Miller Shearer, “On Being a Watch Listed Historian in the Age of Donald Trump,” Anabaptist Historians, December 8, 2016.

Further Reading:

  • Damon Berry, Blood and Faith: Christianity in American White Nationalism (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2017): 74-101.
  • Ben Goossen, “Mennonite Fascism,” Anabaptist Historians, April 27, 2017.

7) Ethnic Shibboleths and Racial Exclusion

Austin McCabe Juhnke, “Rethinking 606, the ‘Mennonite National Anthem,’” Anabaptist Historians, November 28, 2017.

Ben Goossen, “Mennonite Genealogy and Racial Privilege,” Anabaptist Historians, November 3, 2016.

Further Reading:

8) Interracial Alliances and the Problem of Tokenism

Tobin Miller Shearer, “A Prophet Pushed Out: Vincent Harding and the Mennonites,” Mennonite Life 69 (2015): online.

Tobin Miller Shearer, “Mennonites and the Magical African-American Friend,” Anabaptist Historians, April 10, 2019.

Further Reading:

  • Philipp Gollner, “How Mennonites Became White: Religious Activism, Cultural Power, and the City,” Mennonite Quarterly Review 90, no. 2 (2016): 165-193.
  • Steve Heinrichs, ed., Unsettling the Word: Biblical Experiments in Decolonization (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2019).

9) White Mennonites as Allies

Tobin Miller Shearer, “The Deepest Dichotomy: How A Sixty-Five-Year-Old Essay on Racism Helped Me Learn A Lesson From Before I Was Born,” Anabaptist Historians, September 8, 2016.

Tobin Miller Shearer, “Confronting the Confessional Catharsis: David A. Shank and the Legacy of ‘Race Criminals’,” Anabaptist Historians, April 19, 2019.

Further Reading:

10) Anabaptists, Antisemitism, and the Holocaust

Mennonites and the Holocaust Syllabus,”Anabaptist Historians, April 7, 2018.

“Lisa Schirch, “How Mennonites Reckon with our History in the Holocaust,” Anabaptist Historians, March 23, 2018.

Further Reading:

  • Mark Jantzen and John D. Thiesen, eds., European Mennonites and the Holocaust (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2020).
  • Benjamin W. Goossen, Chosen Nation: Mennonites and Germany in a Global Era (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

11) Anabaptism, Race, and Overseas Missions

Danang Kristiawan, “The Faint Past and Constructed Identity: The Challenges of Historical Awareness in Javanese Mennonite Church,” Anabaptist Historians, May 21, 2020.

Lucille Marr, “Mysticism and Evangelicalism in the Writings of a ‘Spiritual Mother,’” Anabaptist Historians, January 28, 2020.

Further Reading:

12) Building Coalitions

Felipe Hinojosa, “Freedom Dreams: On the Legacy of the Minority Ministries Council,” Anabaptist Historians, April 24, 2017.

Tobin Miller Shearer, “Money, Sex, and Power: The Black Manifesto and the Minority Ministries Council,” Anabaptist Historians,April 13, 2017.

Further Reading:


We hope that these readings offer entry points into deep, long-lasting movements that address racism and violence in Anabaptist communities and beyond. We see scholarship and education as elements of larger struggles against structural injustice that also include organizing, protests, voting, and other strategies for systemic change. We hope that this Anti-Racist Reading List will inspire fresh research into the subjects covered here as well as new areas like Anabaptism and policing. If you are conducting such scholarship, please contact us about featuring your work.

This Anabaptist Anti-Racist Reading List was compiled by the Board of Anabaptist Historians: Ben Goossen, Simone Horst, Ted Maust, and Christina Entz Moss, as well as by Coordinating Editor, Joel Horst Nofziger. Thanks to Rachel Waltner Goossen and Madeline J. Williams for providing comments.

Public Nudity and Prophecy in Early Anabaptism: The Cases of Lienhard Jost and the Naaktlopers

On the 10th of February, in 1535, the Melchiorite Anabaptist Hendrick Hendricks Snyder addressed a group of seven men and five women and prophesied to them of God’s impending wrath. Then he cast off first the weapons and then the very clothes he wore, and threw them into the fire.[1] The other men and women followed suit and burned all their clothing as well. The group then ran into the city, shouting “Woe, woe, woe! Divine wrath, divine wrath, divine wrath!” Unarmed and small in numbers, the naaktlopers or “naked walkers” were easily captured by the Netherlandish authorities. They refused clothing even as they were escorted to prison, citing their intention to proclaim the “naked truth.”[2] All the men involved in the incident, and some of the women, were sentenced to capital punishment as a result of their involvement, and the authorities in Amsterdam were motivated to enforce imperial edicts against Anabaptism more stringently than they had before.[3]

The naaktlopers’ demonstration provided ample fodder for polemicists who sought to warn their readers about the dangers and excesses of Anabaptism. A little more than a decade after the incident, in 1548, the Dutch humanist and Catholic priest Lambertus Hortensius published a scathing account of Anabaptism in the Low Countries. Hortensius’ account circulated in several editions well into the seventeenth century and in several countries. A Dutch translation appeared in 1667, and in 1702 a French adaptation was published. The Dutch and French editions came accompanied with a striking woodcut of the incident, intended to further shock the audience and convince them of Anabaptism’s ridiculousness, if not its nefariousness.

1702 woodcut
A woodcut featuring the naaktlopers from the 1702 French edition of Lambertus Hortensius’ anti-Anabaptist polemic, available at https://books.google.com/books?id=Ei-qGw_urRUC

For Hortensius and his translators, the naaktloper incident provided prime evidence of just how ludicrous Anabaptism was, and how deluded and unreasonable its followers were. Their descriptions of the event alternated between ridicule and pity for the persons involved. “Since these people were full of nothing but visions and each one considered himself a prophet, when the mood seized them, one could see them committing completely strange and ridiculous acts,” wrote Hortensius’ French translator. He went on to describe their decision to cast off their clothes and walk around Amsterdam naked as “one of the most ridiculous [ideas] that could befall the imagination.”[4] For these early modern polemicists, the naaktlopers, with their immoderate excess and their willingness to perform every strange idea that came into their heads, perfectly encapsulated the failings of Anabaptism. More recent histories of Anabaptism have largely recounted the story of the naaktlopers as part of the general uproar surrounding the establishment of the Anabaptist kingdom of Munster, but have largely treated the public nudity aspect of the story as a curious but isolated incident.

The naaktlopers, however, were not entirely unique among their coreligionists. The third chapter of Strasbourg prophet Lienhard Jost’s visions reveals that he engaged in public nudity as a prophetic act, just as the naaktlopers did. Lienhard recounted that, one night, he felt the Spirit of God tell him to rise immediately, disrobe, and run through the streets of Strasbourg naked in order to sound the Mord Glock—the alarm bell located in Strasbourg’s cathedral. He rose immediately and ran through the streets of Strasbourg, shouting the following prophetic utterance: “Murder upon murder! The child in its mother’s womb must and will be terrified before the word of the Lord comes to pass . . . if the lords and rulers of the city only knew that their princely clothes will be removed from them before God and the world, that they might seek God again, they would all cry along with me…but after this the child in its mother’s womb will rejoice again, and all those who have been sad will find peace.”[5] Like the naaktlopers, Lienhard’s actions resulted in his capture. However, given the relative tolerance of Strasbourg’s magistrates toward religious dissenters, he met with a much lighter sentence—he was brought to Strasbourg’s hospital, where he was deemed insane and moved to an asylum. He remained there for a few months until his release.

This is the only incidence of public nudity in Lienhard’s visions, but it nevertheless is not out of place. In his 2015 article on Lienhard’s prophecies, Jonathan Green notes the prevalence of clothing-based imagery. Lienhard counsels his audience to throw off their stinking clothes in order that God might clothe them, although he quickly clarifies that he is speaking in spiritual, not physical terms.[6] Green also notes the performative nature of Lienhard’s visions in general. Lienhard was not content to merely share the words of God, but instead frequently contrived an object lesson. He chewed and then spit out bread in order to demonstrate his rejection of “idolatrous masses,” and he poured wine on his bed and watched it spread as a symbol of how a God-sent abundance of good things would soon spread across the earth.[7] Lienhard’s own experiences of God were multi-sensory. He not only saw and heard God’s messages, he felt and tasted them. Since his experience of divine revelation that was so arresting and all-consuming, it is unsurprising that Lienhard would attempt to replicate aspects of this experience for his audience.

It is impossible to establish with certainty whether Hendrick Hendricks Snyder and the rest of the naaktlopers were familiar with Lienhard’s prophetic career, but it seems distinctly possible, and perhaps even likely. Melchior Hoffman assiduously disseminated their visions and prophecies among his followers. In 1533, his associate Cornelijs Poldermann testified to Strasbourg’s Protestant preachers in a letter that the whole Netherlands were full of the Josts’ books—an obviously hyperbolic claim, but one that nevertheless speaks to the popularity the Josts’ visions enjoyed among Hoffman’s followers in the Low Countries.[8] Thus, Snyder and his compatriots may well have read Lienhard’s visions, or at least been apprised of their contents if they could not read them themselves. Their cries of woe even echo Lienhard’s cries of “murder upon murder,” although Lienhard went further and promised God’s eventual mercy after announcing impending judgment. He also tied nakedness to the casting off of superfluous wealth, and the historical record does not say whether any of the naaktlopers made a similar connection.

Whether or not the naaktlopers drew their inspiration from Lienhard, however, the practice of public nudity as a prophetic act has a long-established place in the Jewish and Christian canon. In Isaiah 20, God commanded Isaiah to remove the sackcloth and ashes he had previously worn to prophesy and instead to prophesy completely naked for a period of three years as a portent of God’s impending judgment on Egypt.[9] Isaiah’s display is the only divinely sanctioned instance of post-Garden of Eden public nudity in the Bible—Noah’s drunken exhibitionism in Genesis earned the patriarch and his son divine censure—but it is not, for all that, an aberration.[11] The Old Testament prophets frequently engaged in visually arresting, often shocking and bizarre displays as a means of reinforcing God’s message. Early modern Christians in search of a more recent example could point to Saint Francis of Assisi, who made a public display of his rejection of his parents and his upbringing by publicly casting off his clothing before the Bishop of Assisi. This incident had a powerful hold on the imaginations of medieval Christians; it was not only recounted in many of St. Francis’ vitae, but also became the subject of several different artistic depictions of the life of Francis in late medieval and Renaissance-era European churches and chapels.

It is difficult to ascertain just how much Lienhard Jost and the Amsterdam naaktlopers knew about the biblical and medieval prophets and saints who came before them. Lienhard Jost was an illiterate peasant labourer, and the educational status of Hendrick Hendricks Snyder and his followers is not known. It is probable that they never had the opportunity to study the biblical text in much detail or read saints’ vitae for themselves. Nevertheless, they may well have become acquainted with some of these examples through preaching, ecclesiastical artwork, or oral tradition. Elements of Lienhard’s account suggest that he may have, consciously or unconsciously, drawn inspiration from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. It is true that he never mentioned Francis by name and he frequently derided the Catholic mass as idolatrous and clerical celibacy as an abomination. Even so, however, there are some striking points of similarity between the life of the Strasbourg prophet and that of the Italian mendicant. Lienhard’s motivation for running around Strasbourg naked bears a strong resemblance to the Francis’ motivation for disrobing in front of his father and the bishop of Assisi. For both men, the casting off of clothing represented an emphatic rejection of wealth and opulence. In Francis’ case, he rejected the wealth and opulence to which he had been born and which his family still enjoyed. In Lienhard’s case, though he himself was not endowed with much wealth to cast off, he physically enacted the spiritual renunciation he expected from Strasbourg’s ruling class. Another event in Lienhard’s life also mirrored that of St. Francis: in pondering the wounds of Christ, Lienhard received a physical reminder of these wounds on his right foot, which calls to mind Francis’ reception of the stigmata, a famous event that inspired many imitators—particularly women—well into the seventeenth century.[12]

The surviving accounts of the naaktlopers are far less detailed than Lienhard’s description of his visions, and make it difficult to say with certainty even what their motivation was for running into Amsterdam unclothed—whether it was a warning of God’s impending wrath, a reminder of humanity’s vulnerability, or a call to cast off worldly wealth and greed—let alone what people in biblical or church history served as their inspiration. Nevertheless, regardless of whether Hendrick Hendricks Snyder and his followers consciously imitated Lienhard Jost or Francis of Assisi or the prophet Isaiah in their public display of nudity, their actions, while shocking (and purposefully so), were not an aberration. Lienhard Jost and the naaktlopers’ decisions to disrobe publicly form part of a long Judeo-Christian tradition of prophecy as a public performance, designed not only to share the word of the Lord, but also to communicate his message to the people visually through the use of striking physical displays and object lessons. The word had become flesh in Jesus, and, in a lesser way, it became flesh again and again through his messengers.


[1] Samme Zijlstra, Om de ware gemeente en de oude gronden: Geschiedenis van de dopersen in de Nederlanden, 1531-1675 (Leeuwarden: Fryske Akademy, 2000), 135-136.

[2] Lambertus Hortensius, Tumultuum Anabaptistarum Liber Unus (Amsterdam: Henricus Laurentius, 1636), 55.

[3] Cornelius Krahn, Dutch Anabaptism: Origin, Spread, Life, and Thought (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1981), 148.

[4] Lambertus Hortensius and François Catrou, Histoire des Anabaptistes (Amsterdam: Jacques Desbordes, 1702), 106.

[5] Lienhard Jost, Ein Worhafftige Hohe und Feste Prophecey des Linhart Josten van Stroßburg, edited by Melchior Hoffman (Deventer: Albert Paffraet, 1532), fol. B3r.

[6] Jonathan Green, “The Lost Book of the Strasbourg Prophets: Orality, Literacy, and Enactment in Lienhard Jost’s Visions” in The Sixteenth Century Journal 46:2 (Summer 2015): 324.

[7] Green, 324-325.

[8] Manfred Krebs and Hans Georg Rott (eds), Quellen zur Geschichte der Täufer. Vol. 8. Elsass II. Teil: Stadt Straßburg 1533-1535 (Gütersloh: Gerd Mohn, 1960), 213.

[9] Isaiah 20:1-6.

[10] Genesis 9:20-23

[11] See Julian Gardner, “A Minor Episode of Public Disorder in Assisi: Francis renounces his Inheritance.” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 68:2 (2005): 275-285.

[12] Jost, Worhafftige Hohe und Feste Prophecey, fols. E1v-E2r. On the stigmata in late medieval and early modern mysticism, see Stephen Haliczer, Between Exaltation and Infamy: Female Mystics in the Golden Age of Spain (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).

Considering Seventeenth-Century Schutzgeld

The collection of Schutzgeld, or ‘protection money,’ had begun in the East Frisian city of Emden shortly after the city’s revolt against Count Edzard II in 1595. The first extant records date to 1601 and detail the amount owed by each Mennonite and Jewish household within the newly autonomous (and predominantly Calvinist) jurisdiction. (For a bit more on the earliest Schutzgeld records in Emden, please see my post from November 27, 2018.) But only a few registers of this particular tax remain for the city of Emden. We have documentation from the years 1601, 1602, 1626, 1638, 1737 and 1749. There are a few additional documents from the eighteenth century in which Schutzgeld was recorded from both across the county and within the city of Emden, but only compelled from Jews – a development that illustrates the increasingly disparate paths made for Mennonites and Jews in this area of the empire. But even with those additional accounts, we can see the records that remain are the exception rather than the rule. Today, I’ll examine the two sets of records from the mid-seventeenth century.

The 1626 Emden Schutzgeld records [Fig. 1] were clearly functional, as owed amounts were crossed out and replaced, red scratches along the edge denoted fulfilled obligations, and the slim bound booklet generally displayed marks of use and wear.1 The obligations were divided among 22 different geographic sections, named companies, each with a corresponding responsible captain. These captains were not Mennonites, but the leaders of the city or night watch – a communal obligation that this tax exempted Mennonites from performing. The numbers in these ‘companies’ varied from as few as one man or household (Dirck Simons, in Hindrich Busert’s company, who owed 3 Emden gulden) to as many as 19. There are 175 names overall, of which 19 were noted as Jews. Another 3 names were stricken from the record; as two of the three names stricken were widows owing only 1 gulden, it seems likely that these were either the recently dead or the benevolently omitted. Unlike the Schutzgeld records from a quarter-century before, however, none are here designated as ‘paupers’ and thus exempt from payment.

That leaves 153 paying Mennonite households, 9 of which were headed by widows and 3 of which appear to have been headed by underage sons. The density and prosperity of the Mennonite community in Emden held steady in the quarter century between 1602 and 1626. The total amount remitted by that Mennonite community came to 654 Gulden and 5 Schap – an amount figured through an informal sum on the back of the well-worn booklet itself.

The 1638 Schutzgeld records [Fig. 2], by contrast, are much cleaner and show no evidence of their use as a working document – but also include no amounts at all.2 There is no indication of amounts owed, the vagaries of collection, or indeed that money exchanged hands at all. This, then, is a list that named Mennonites and Jews, but shares little else in common with the list from just 12 years prior. This lack of consistency could perhaps be evidence for haphazard or even intermittent collection within the city of Emden, but it is more likely that this document represented a different stage in the process than the worn document of 1626. Additionally, the helpful numbering along the left edge of this document drops off in the middle of the second page, after ‘40,’ which confirms further that this is merely a draft of a later, more useable register.

There are 21 companies in the 1638 record, and a total of 176 names – almost no movement in the overall number of marginalized residents sharing this tax. However, the number of Jews has dropped significantly for such a small population, from 19 to 11. That leaves a modest increase in the number of Mennonite households, now at 165 and up from 153 in 1626. Of those 165 households, a steady number – 8 now, in comparison with the 1626 count of 9 – are widows. For the first time, a ‘doctor’ appears in the register: a ‘Doctor Eilde’ residing in the company of Captain Eggo Hermans. Without amounts, however, it’s hard to tell how prosperous this Mennonite doctor was – or indeed, whether the fortunes of the community had changed in aggregate.

Four captains’ names remain the same from the 1626 collection to that of 1638, a comparison that allow us to consider the nature of community change. The company of Viet Hindricks grew from 5 to 10 in those twelve years, and only two of the names remained the same: Nonne Aggen and Johan Jacobs ‘Flet,’ neither of whom appear in the index of the city archive. In Herman Gerrits’s company the growth was more modest, from 11 to 13, but a full seven of the names remained the same. This was perhaps a younger set of taxed households, and an area of the city with more Jewish inhabitants (4 were designated as Jews in both 1626 and 1638). The company of Jeldrich Taken grew from 7 to 12, with 4 names remaining the same. The number of Mennonites shrunk in the company of Johan Horstman, from 7 to 5, and there are two instances of family name matches but no individual persons who appear on both records.

These comparisons are more suggestive than anything. Twelve years represents perhaps half of a generation, and the 1638 records leave open the question of economic growth, prosperity, or burden. Schutzgeld was presumably a yearly tax, as it replaced watch service that was continuous for other male adults, but the lack of sources leaves confusing caesura in the historical record. What the remaining Schutzgeld sources continue to attest to, however, was the bureaucratic grouping of Mennonites and Jews together within the city of Emden. These religious minorities were nameable, even when the names given by governmental authorities were imprecise, and they were thus taxable. These were communities who continued to live and worship despite a lack of official toleration documents, and it is in this way that economic instruments must be read as crude (and inherently unstable) religious settlements. Informal toleration through taxation and through other one-time compulsory payments – for dikes, for military expenses, or just to balance the books; what older historiography has rightly labeled ‘extortion’ – provided both plausible cover and continuing threat for both Mennonites and Jews in early modern Emden.


  1. Stadtarchiv Emden, I. Reg. Nr. 415, 45-52.
  2. Stadtarchiv Emden, I. Reg. Nr. 415, 95-98 and 101-103.

The Faint Past and Constructed Identity: The Challenges of Historical Awareness in Javanese Mennonite Church

Danang Kristiawan

Introduction

Talking about history in the Javanese Mennonite Church (Gereja Injili di Tanah Jawa) is always difficult and challenging due to several factors. First, as the oldest Mennonite community outside of Europe and North America, dating back to 1854, the Javanese Mennonite Church has such a long history and has existed through many dynamic events, including Dutch colonization, Japanese occupation, the Indonesian revolution and struggle for independence, and the anti-Communist massacres of 1965-66. All of these events, and others, have had significant impacts on the survival of the archives and historical documents as well as the kinds of memories that have been handed down. Second, most Javanese Mennonite congregations live in rural and coastal areas in Northern Java and some parts of Sumatra. In the past, many rural people were uneducated and told their stories with an oral rather than written tradition. Third, many local churches show a lack of concern for history and administrative issues, including documenting and writing their experiences.

Making History, Constructing Identity: Hegemony of written tradition in an oral culture?

It is commonly understood that the most important resources for constructing and writing history are archival and documentary records. This inevitably means that history will be written from the perspective of the elites and educated people who had access and the ability to write. To know about early Javanese Mennonites, the written primary documents records are found in the writings of Pieter Janzs, the Dutch Mennonite Mission reports, and the colonial government documents, all of which are in Dutch. The most complete source is the Dutch-language diary of Pieter Janzs which has been edited by Alle Hoekema and published 1997 with title “Tot Heil van Java’s Arme Bevolking. Een Keuze uit het Dagboek (1851-1860) van Pieter Jansz, Doopsgezind Zendeling in Jepara, Midden-Java”. The mission report is preserved in Amsterdam. Additionally, there is a book by T. H. E. Jensma, Doopsgezinde Zending in Indonesie, written in 1968, about history of Mennonite mission in Indonesia based on Mennonite mission archives in Amsterdam. Therefore, our historical construction of Mennonites in Java starts from the Dutch Mission perspective. The lives, theology, and teaching of Javanese evangelists and believers are hidden because they did not leave written materials. Even though Kyai Ibrahim Tunggul Wulung had far more followers than Jansz, information about him is very limited. In mission documents, Jansz’s diary and reports, Wulung was pictured negatively, as not “really Christian” because of his many Javanese ways and ideas.

Writing history is also constructing identity and those who have power will make their story the dominant identity. In oral cultures, it’s very important to give attention to the oral story as well as written records. Both written and oral resources contain the same probability of truth and\or bias. Written documents were written in paper and preserved in archives. But oral tradition was also written in the hearts of the people and passed down between generations. For oral societies, validity does not become the main concern, but the question instead is how the story touch experiential meaning and values that they live.

Local Churches and their Unrevealed Histories

Of the 110 local churches which are members of the Javanese Mennonite Conference/Synod, only few churches have written histories. Many more churches haven’t written their history yet, even though they have existed more than forty years. These churches face similar problems when they start to write their local church histories:

  • The absence of documents and archives. Many churches are located in rural and coastal area and they lack concern to write church administrative records and documentation, even membership and baptismal records. So oral history approach will be useful for writing their history.
  • Many of those who know most about their church history have already passed away. Later generations often don’t understand their history because the history was not passed down to them.
  • There is a tendency in writing history in Indonesia to focus on leaders and church buildings. Many churches are mad about history which regards of whom, how, what, and where was the first of something. Sometimes the church history becomes the list of buildings.
  • Difficulty to decide on the start or the beginning of a new church in history. Is the beginning of the church counted from the first worship? Or is it the first baptism of local? Or is it the first church building? Or is it the first local church organization?

Conclusion:

This short reflection shows our struggles with archiving and maintaining history in the Javanese Mennonite Church. Talked about writing history is related to cultural tradition of society. It is important to think about archiving oral tradition by collecting story, legend, and myth which is connected to church and consider it as resource for writing history. Finally, I would encourage Anabaptist/Mennonite churches to more aware about their history, which is very important. Local churches should be more aware about documents, archives, local stories before all documents are lost, memories fade, and all witnesses die.